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The Blackridge House

Julia Martin (The Blackridge House) recalls one of the last conversations with her mother. After several failed hip operations and seven consecutive anaesthetics, Betty’s brain was severely affected, as I have witnessed with my own mother. One cannot call this state of being ‘dementia’, for she is not demented. Nor forgetfulness, for as much as she forgets certain details, she distinctly remembers others. Getting people confused in the present, she has clear memories of those in her past. The linearity is not clear, yet the knowing insight into life is there. She recalls with great depth her days as a child in their house called Blackridge, the house that Julia sets off to find against all odds.

In this passage, Betty describes her emotional space, which sadly is also reflected by the physical space, a Care Home somewhere in Cape Town. Woven through the book is the subtext of how this place fails on every level to be a Home, a place of Being, where people are caring and attentive and the environment supportive. Whilst being fed and cleaned, the food sounds awful and the attention to her Being non-existent. As if her state of Being is not lonely enough, there seems to be nothing in the physical environment that soothes or connects. Betty loves the birds, but is reprimanded for wanting to feed them, a recurring theme in almost every Care Home that I have worked in over the past 23 years. “DO NO FEED THE PIGEONS”, and yet in every home, there is someone who lives for feeding the pigeons.

I remember a home in rural Free State, where an introverted resident insisted on feeding the pigeons, getting herself in serious trouble from the Matron. Like a child, she was scolded and reprimanded. Like a child, she took no notice. And lo and behold, the pigeon food attracted mice, and the mice attracted the wild cats. One kitten became very tame and loved the attention of the resident (and the fat mice). Slowly but surely the kitten was lured onto the window sill, and eventually through the window. This particular resident was known for being sullen, an introvert, not someone in whose room the staff would spend a lot of time. Then, someone said that they heard loud laughter from behind the always-closed door. “Not possible” was the reaction, she never laughs. Some of the staff listened behind the closed door and confirmed that the lady was laughing out loud inside the room. Of course, the verdict was “Alzheimer’s!” – she had nally ‘lost it’!

Weeks and weeks later her secret was discovered – the little kitten had moved in. It was a crazy tabby, taking over her room with the joyful vigour that only a kitten can produce. Up the curtains, across the top of the cupboard, underneath the bed, running circles across the room. Joy. Unconditional love. Connectedness. Meaning.

This is Strepies, bringer of such meaning. (I took the photograph after hearing the story from the staff on one of my visits.) Dementia is not dehumanising. It is the way in which we treat people that takes away their humanity, the rules and regulations, the fear of risks, and the task-orientated, medical approach.

Whilst Betty finds her being-in-the-world frustrating at times, her teachings are profound. She opens up new possibilities for connection with her family. “Family – truth – family. Sometimes it was the gift of dementia to free her words from the creative slippage. And sometimes the reduced inhibitions of her condition took her right into the emotional heart of the unspoken”. The gift of dementia, if only we will dare to go there, to engage on their terms, to be in their space. Julia gets to a point where it does not matter that her mother forgets that she is her daughter, or that she repeats the same story. There are moments of such clear articulation of wisdom, but they only come with time and patience. Through the thick rhizomes of the bamboo, shoots sprout up where they are least expected. Beautiful green shoots, new green unfolding potential of growth and life.

“I explain as best I could what I’d been reading about the hippocampus in relation to other parts of the brain. That the shrinking of the hippocampus can mean it’s dif cult to form new memories, while your oldest memories may still be intact”. ‘Once you get that into your mind, you don’t feel so responsible’ she said (Betty, Julia’s mother). ‘But what is the mind then? I think the mind is the working part – and that’s certainly very busy. She continues a few moments later: ‘There may be a reason for your mind to forget something you don’t want to remember. If it’s a thing you can’t handle, you put it away and you forget it as though it didn’t happen.’

There is a pattern in the rhizomes that grow underneath the surface. This complex network of thoughts and memories and feelings and ideas is indeed a tangled web, woven by our minds’ play with consciousness. And the more we try to order it, the more it confuses us with its subtle idiosyncrasies. It is not ours to know or to de ne or to order. It is all very tiring. It requires patience. Endless patience. If that is all that it teaches us, it is a lesson worth learning.

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